On the other side of the coin are shift workers, who, depending on their schedule, may have a sleep pattern that’s completely opposite of the cycle of natural light. Though late chronotypes may have an easier time with this work schedule, night shift workers have been shown to be at greater risk for certain kinds of cancer, because disrupted sleep can impair the immune system. In Bad Kissingen, Kantermann says, shift workers are mostly health care professionals—doctors, nurses, etc.—people you generally want to be well-rested.
If this sounds like a lot of problems with not a lot of solutions, well, it is. Even with the abundance of research available, there are practical problems to consider.
“The project seems quite challenging, attempting to accommodate individuals yet maintain a societal framework,” Mary Carskadon, director of chronobiology and sleep research at Bradley Hospital, and psychiatry professor at Brown University, told me in an email. “I can think of a number of barriers that might arise, including occupational misfits, or challenges to family life, or unavailability of resources that might be required.”
Foster also expressed concern that enthusiasm for sleep-improving projects tends to peter out over time, that people just don’t take the importance of sleep seriously, and efforts aren’t sustainable. But he praised the questionnaire Kantermann et. al are using to measure chronotypes, saying they already have the data of “tens of thousands of people all across Europe,” enough data to be able to analyze it and make generalizations about populations.
The signers of the letter of intent pledged to meet five times a year to talk about how things are progressing—Kantermann says their next meeting will probably be in March, and he’s just glad people keep coming back; that, so far, interest hasn’t petered out on a project that, by its nature, is a bit of a long game.
The next step, Kantermann says, is to experiment with the lighting in local clinics, hotels, and possibly even the town hall. The ChronoCity project is partnering with lighting companies to help make that possible. “We have to just manipulate a bit here and there,” he says. “If we change too much, you will see an effect, but then it’s hard to determine what happened, so we have to be careful that we don’t change too much.”
Though they’re currently taking small bites out of this whale of a project, Kantermann is dreaming big.
“My great aim for this town is to make Bad Kissingen the first town in Germany that abolishes Daylight Savings Time,” he says. “So the people can decide for themselves to change their clocks or not… To make this really a place where your internal time is acknowledged.”
In a hypothetical future world where Bad Kissingen succeeds in letting all of its citizens and visitors live out their chronotypes, the societal benefits would be huge. The town as a whole would be more creative, happier, and more alert. Social interaction would improve, as would the population’s ability to problem-solve. Chronically tired people often struggle with obesity, immune suppression, and mental illness, so the town’s overall health—both mental and physical—would improve.
“Maybe this village will ultimately change its behavior,” Foster says. “This hasn’t been tried before, so they’ll learn the best way of keeping the town on board. Thomas [Kantermann] is very good at interacting with people, so if anybody can do this, I suspect he will be able to.”
Perhaps Bad Kissingen will be the sleep equivalent of the first monkey to wash its food—a harbinger of societal change to come.